A "worried" Matt Hancock has warned Britons returning from quarantined areas of northern Italy that they must self-isolate in order to help contain the spread of coronavirus.
The Health Secretary said anyone who has returned in the last two weeks from any of the dozen towns in northern Italy which have been put on lockdown due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in the region, must self-isolate whether they are displaying flu-like symptoms or not.
He added that anyone returning from parts of Italy north of Pisa, who have flu-like symptoms, should stay indoors at home and avoid contact with other people immediately.
The warning comes as a number of UK schools closed, or asked students to self-quarantine after returning from trips to the affected Italian region.
In Northern Ireland around 50 pupils and staff have been sent home as a precaution after returning from an Italian ski holiday.
Southern parts of Italy have reported their first confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday after a woman on Sicily tested positive having returned from holiday in northern Lombardo.
Two cases were also reported in Tuscany, well south of the epicenter.
The Health Secretary advised any Britons returning to the UK to call NHS 111 if they showed symptoms.
There are at least 283 confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy, with seven deaths.
Mr Hancock's warning comes as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) updated the list of countries where travellers returning to the UK will need to follow clinical advice in connection with the Covid-19 outbreak.
In a statement on Tuesday, it said people returning from Iran, lockdown areas of northern Italy, special care zones in South Korea, and Hubei province in China since February 19 should call NHS 111, stay indoors and avoid contact with other people even if they do not have symptoms.
The update prompted a school in Cheshire to close for the rest of the week after staff and pupils visited a coronavirus-hit region of Italy.
- Streets in Italy are all but deserted as towns are put in lockdown:
"We're taking a belt and braces approach to protect the public and to try to stop the spread of this virus and at the same time we're doing the preparations we need in case it becomes a global pandemic," Mr Hancock said.
People returning from Italy north of Pisa and Florence, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma from the same date - who develop symptoms - should do the same.
Mr Hancock said he is "worried" about the virus spreading to the UK, with an estimated 80,000 cases globally and European neighbour Italy now the most infected country outside of Europe.
"We're very worried about this outbreak in northern Italy which has expanded very rapidly", he said as he advised travellers to self-isolate.
He said precautions taken in the UK have been "successful" so far but said outbreaks in countries "closer to home" is a cause for concern.
In response to the outbreak, Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters as well as cancelling Venice's Carnival and Masses in the two regions where clusters have formed - Lombardy and Veneto.
Police and soldiers are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo'Euganeo.
The situation is worse still in Asia, with at least 2,663 deaths in China among at least 77,658 cases.
South Korea has confirmed 10 deaths among at least 977 cases and Japan says there have been four deaths among 850 cases - 691 from a cruise ship docked in Yokohama.
Other countries with confirmed cases include the UK, where 13 people have been diagnosed, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Germany, France, Canada and several others.
Mr Hancock said "people need to take responsibility" in the bid to contain the virus, adding "there are things that all of us can do to try to stop the spread of this virus".
"Everyone should be washing their hands, and if you do sneeze, to make sure that you catch it kill it and bin it - that public health advice is there for a reason."
He didn't "rule out" taking similar measures to Italy, where large areas could be put into lockdown if the disease hits the UK hard, but said "there is no evidence that that is certain to happen, there is still a good chance that we can avoid a major problem here".
The swift wide-spread of the disease lead the World Heath Organisation (WHO) to warn of the need to prepare for a pandemic.
A pandemic, according the the WHO is the worldwide spread of a new disease, as opposed to an epidemic, which is a disease contained within one country.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organisation would not describe Covid-19 as a pandemic at present - but admitted it could change.
"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet," he said.
"Now is not the time to focus on what word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today."